Pokémon Go and Cultural “Soft Power”
By Tai Wei Lim

Pokémon Go and Cultural “Soft Power”

Aug. 31, 2016  |     |  0 comments

When Pokémon first appeared in the Japanese anime, comics, and games (ACG) universe, it was a card game designed by Tajiri. Nintendo (which was historically a card game company) took over the product and turned it into a popular handheld game. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pokémon became one of the first Japanese popular cultural products to fully go global when it successfully penetrated the US consumer market. With the slogan “Gotta catch em all”, Pokémon became a runaway hit with kids and its influence shaped an entire generation of American children through primetime TV.


Owing to the global popularity of the product, some popular cultural scholars started to associate Pokémon products with cultural “soft power.” The term “soft power” was first coined by Joseph Nye to describe US global leadership in persuading its allies and friends to carry out certain policies without the need to dispense force. Some scholarly interpretations adapted the term to describe and analyze the influence that popular cultural products have on consumers since they purchase and use those products willingly. Cultural “soft power” can also be applied to the idea that consumption can spawn curiosity in other aspects of a popular cultural product, spurring consumers to pick up Japanese language, traditional culture, and interest in travel to Japan, as in the case of Pokémon.


For some parents it also spawned concerns because kids got addicted to playing the game and collecting cards that featured rarely-found characters, and consequently neglected their homework and studies. Adults were also featured in the news when they became violent after failing to get limited edition toys during peak seasons for their children, or were caught stealing rare cards to exchange for cash at collectors’ stores. The incidents became negative publicity for the franchise.


This phenomenon of addictive collecting was started by the Japanese marketing strategy of collecting “gentei” (limited edition) products where certain Pokémon collector’s cards were produced in small quantities and became highly cherished because of that. Collectors were unable to choose these rare collector’s cards because they bought cards in opaque packaging. Therefore, hard-core collectors had to keep buying until they found the cards they wanted after opening up the packaging.


However, most adults and parents were able to identify positive attributes of the Pokémon product as a whole. First, parents in support of Pokémon products argued that the cartoon was non-violent unlike other domestically-produced multimedia products. Pokémon consisted mainly of cute monsters with roundish bodies, anthropomorphic features, short limbs and large eyes. It was a non-violent alternative to the usual cartoon diet that American audiences were used to.


Second, exchanging limited edition cards could instruct children on the basic features of capitalism, entrepreneurship, and doing business. Teenage collectors also worked hard in part-time jobs to generate income to collect cards, teaching lessons in Calvinistic ethics. Some anthropologists and commentators attributed the initial fear of Pokémon in North America to the fact that it was something uniquely new from Japan and was therefore an irrational fear of the unknown.


The phenomenon of Pokémon Go was built on the foundations of the real-world physical Pokémon products of the 1990s and early 2000s. Being virtual in cyberspace offers advantages for Pokémon Go. When Nintendo, in collaboration with their American partners, decided to penetrate the US market and effectively made Pokémon a global consumer product, they had to resort to unusual marketing techniques. Three examples can be detailed here.


First, Pokémon was promoted to children and teenagers in primary consumption spaces in North America and this included shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and large toy retail stores. A lot of freebies were also distributed in conjunction with this launch. Pokémon Go as a virtual game needed much less effort in physically marketing and retailing its presence due to the advantages of cyberspace, incurring little costs compared to physically marketing Pokémon products. Moreover, Pokémon Go were able to build on the popularity and recognition of the Pokémon physical goods when it was created online.


For its impact on uniting previously disparate communities and connecting players on a global basis, Pokémon Go can arguably qualify for emanating cultural “soft power.”

Second, Pokémon was promoted to the American heartland through an unusual marketing strategy with airdrops of free toys to children. The promotion to the American heartland starting in Kansas was a gamble because it was a test of whether Pokémon would appeal to children raised by families with traditional American values. It paid off. By the time Pokémon Go was released this year, Pokémon had already become a well-known established ACG character in the US. Pokémon Go is an on-demand choice, and it needed little targeted marketing because the narrative and contents of the game are shaped by the people that play the game interactively online. It is sometimes known as an augmented reality game because the players themselves actively seek out sites to integrate into the game by taking photos of their backdrops and seeking out virtual characters based on their real-time locations.


The hype generated by fans is also felt and transmitted online. I personally witnessed and experienced this hype in two locations — Japan and Singapore. The intense speculation on the launch dates for the game was tremendous and keenly felt amongst gamers and curious members of the public. It was not a producer-driven game but a consumer-driven application. Some may label this as the “democratization” of consumption with consumers actively leading the development of the product. In this sense, there is also an element of social movement and activism to the game although the objectives are personal enjoyment rather than specific-issue lobbying.


Third, Nintendo found local partners in the US to help out with the marketing efforts when it had an intention to penetrate the US market, given local toy retailers’ expert knowledge about local lifestyles, culture and habits. Also a collaborative venture, Pokémon Go was created by US-based Niantic Inc. as a reality gaming app. The company’s effort introduced Pokémon into the augmented virtual reality cyberspace. Its huge success lifted Nintendo stocks, increased its market capitalization, and enhanced the company’s branding recognition.


Like the first Pokémon wave when it was introduced into the US consumer market, the launch of Pokémon Go was met with some resistance. There were concerns that the game was intruding into the privacy of players with its global positioning trackability and the amount of data it was able to collect from players. Others were concerned about addiction, this time, on a much wider scale and affecting all age groups. With eyes glued to mobile smartphone screens, players got into accidents, fell off cliffs, got shot at because of perceived suspicious behavior, and distracted drivers on the road.


Other special warnings included players wandering into fields in former wartime zones that still had embedded explosives. There were also concerns about its social impact with scenes of hordes of zombie-like players wandering around the streets at night and loitering around areas where rare Pokémon monster characters could be “found”. I personally witnessed such a large gathering of Pokémon hunters looking for Blastoise. I discovered similar communities trying to catch another rare mutated form of Pikachu known as Raichu. The concept of “gentei” therefore remains very much relevant.


But, like the physical game, the virtual version also bought benefits to the gaming and players’ communities. Brick and mortar retail shops benefitted from using Pokémon Go to advertise their physical locations and creating branding awareness. Quiet and isolated communities began to enjoy groupist sentiments and experienced higher activity levels, attracting people to previously deserted and low-key areas. UNESCO World Heritage sites also got a boost in recognition when players went onsite to capture images as backdrops for the game. Entire communities got together and interacted with one another. Isolated communities can now engage in active interactions with the global gaming community. It also taught self-discipline to some players that I personally know who intended to stop playing the game when they have captured Pikachu; or other players who practice self-discipline and only play the game when they have leisure time.


For its impact on uniting previously disparate communities and connecting players on a global basis, the app can arguably qualify for emanating cultural “soft power.” It also has visible commercial impact as other Nintendo products have collaterally benefitted from Pokémon Go’s popularity. The company as a whole had better stock performance because of the augmented reality game. There is some speculation that other evergreen Nintendo characters like Mario Brothers may also be ushered into the augmented reality realm. With greater numbers of players and characters, gamers and other players may eventually be drawn into a dualistic virtual (Two-Dimensional) and real-world (Three-Dimensional) co-existence where lines of distinction between them gradually become blurred, a state already experienced by some members of the “otaku” community in Japan.    

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *